Updated: Sep 23
Trauma and change go hand in hand
When my uncle mowed over my glasses at the cottage by accident, blasting them to smithereens, I thought my life might just be over. They were not only my path to sight, they were my security blanket.
I’d worn glasses since I was three, the very first thing I reached for every morning for the past thirteen years.
A ‘normal’ sixteen-year-old might have been upset for a minute but that day as I caught my breath after swimming out to the raft, I thought my life might be over.
To say I’d had a year of change would have been a meteoric understatement. My mom had died the February of the previous year, my dad a month later. They’d both been in a car accident that had caused the deaths of four people in total.
We’d moved cities just a couple of months before the accident. Everything for the four of us kids had changed. Everything was unexpected and unwelcome.
Forced change is worlds different from change that has been calculated, thought-through, or voluntary.
During the six weeks that my dad was in a coma, it had been decided that my cousin and his wife who were unable to have kids, who loved my parents, and who’d wanted to move back to Ontario, would be the best fit to become our ‘second set’. Our second set of ‘parents’, the second set of people who would raise us through teenagehood and into adulthood.
They were twenty-six and twenty-seven years old. We were seven, twelve, fourteen (me) and sixteen. It was doomed from the beginning.
It’s one thing to step in to raise a baby or toddler who has lost their parents. But to ‘take over’ the parenting duties for four traumatized, grieving kids — all dealing/not dealing with their losses in different ways — is a job not even Dr. Spock could master, or desire.
Intentions were oh, so good. Everyone around us wanted it to work. So did we. We so enjoyed these cousins and always loved their visits when we’d lived out in the Prairie provinces. They’d been the only family around for kilometers. They were good people and I’m so thankful they even considered taking on such a life-change. But they were completely unequipped.
Of course they were.
Who would be equipped for this most unlikely of scenarios?
We needed therapy, nurturing, homework help, driving lessons, playdates organized, rides to hockey practice, advice on post-secondary options, conversations working through friend drama at school, breakfast, lunch, dinner, laundry, and on and on and on.
For a mom and dad who have a child one at a time and slowly gain experience, parenting is a monumental task day in and day out.
For a childless, inexperienced couple to take over right smack in the middle of death one and death two, well, could it have been anything but doomed?
That October, my cousin’s dad had a stroke and died suddenly, six months after my parents' accident.
That Christmas, a cousin on the other side of the family lost her husband in a car accident, leaving behind four kids under six years old.
Annus horribilis. I was sure these things would keep happening until none of us were left.
I’m an optimistic person by nature and I loved my cousins. But by February of the following year, the crevices in our unnatural living situation were becoming too wide to jump over.
They wanted to keep living with the two of us middle kids, my older sister would be going off to college that September.
Your younger sister can go live with your aunt and uncle nearby. They suggested this new living arrangement to me one evening when I was home alone with them.
I sat at the edge of the stone slab in front of the fireplace, unbelieving.
No! We need to stay together! The opposition was shooting off like fireworks inside of me.
Outside of me, I sat still, eyes wide through my thick glasses. In my world, where all control was lost, I no longer knew how to speak for myself. Nothing was up to me anymore anyway.
Oh, I likely said in a whisper. So, so, so much change had happened. How could I stop this avalanche from suffocating me?
My older sister came home. They sat her down and laid out their plan.
Over my dead body will you ever separate us! She’s got fire in her butt, that one.
Shit hit the fan. So no, we were not going to be separated.
But now what? And where? Who would take us in?
An aunt and uncle with five of their own kids, all boys in their teens except for their one daughter who was about to get married, stepped in.
It was decided that all of us kids would move in with them that summer after we'd finished our school years. They lived four hours away. I’m sure we were brought into the conversation but I don’t remember any of it. More goodbyes to endure. Another new city, new school, new bedroom, new kids to make or not make friends with.
The ‘exchange’ would happen in a neutral place — at my aunt and uncle’s cottage halfway between our last place and this new one.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to my cousins and I can’t recall any thoughts or feelings I had about moving in with my aunt and uncle. I honestly believe I was walking around numbed-out most of the time.
The only thing unmistakenly sharp in my memory is sitting wet but warm, during one of those ‘cottage exchange’ afternoons on the raft about fifty feet from shore. I think my younger brother was with me. We were enjoying ourselves. Having a bit of fun. It felt nice.
Before running to the end of the dock and jumping into the dark water, I’d put my extra super-duper thick glasses on a lawn chair on the grass.
Hearing the sudden crunch under the mower’s blades, I turned my head to where the sound had come from. Squinting, I could juuuust make out my uncle looking in the grass beside the lawn chair he’d just moved.
I’d be making the move without my glasses. No vision.
My heart fell. Why did I leave them in such a stupid place? My uncle felt awful. I told him it was fine.
It took a while to get a new prescription but in that time people kept saying ‘You know, you look really nice without glasses…’.
I got contacts. Had my glasses not met their fate that summer day, I likely would have not considered contacts with all the changes I had going on.
The mowing-over-of-the-coke-bottle-bottoms was not a change I would have made on my own. But it was the first change in a long long stretch of gut-wrenching changes that had a good outcome. I felt way more confident to start at another new school that September.
One small step.
Some of it we choose, some of it we fight and some of it shows up uninvited to our party.
But change, and all its inevitability, helps to move us forward.